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20 May 2015, Vol. 13, No. 14

Editorial: Unsilencing the majority
Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF


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After three weeks of discussions, no consensus has been reached on any of the Main Committee texts. Some work will continue on some of the draft texts in informal meetings, but it is not clear to what end. The atmosphere in the plenary and in the room is not exactly characterised by states having made great progress and being close to agreement. The chairs of the Main Committees, at least II and III, are meeting in small groups to see if agreement can be reached in parallel meetings, but this approach makes it extremely difficult for small delegations from developing countries (and impossible for civil society) to participate.

The limitations on developing countries’ participation in these meetings is already a serious issue. As shown by data collected by Article 36 for a recent paper on underrepresentation of low-income countries in nuclear disarmament forums, such countries are less likely to send representatives to multilateral meetings on nuclear disarmament, tend to field smaller delegations, and make fewer individual statements on average than richer countries.

Where they do make statements and proposals, these do not seem to be given equal weight as those from higher-income delegations. Sending people to and providing accommodation for them in New York City for a month-long conference is no easy feat for delegations from developing countries. With such expense, they should be granted every opportunity to engage fully and to be fully heard. When meetings break up into smaller, closed-door meetings, these delegations struggle even further to participate constructively.

This undermines both the NPT itself, but also multilateralism in general. And it prevents certain states from having the voice they have a right and responsibility to have in these discussions.

“Nuclear disarmament is a global concern: the interests of all countries must be represented for any attempt to achieve the most equitable outcomes for populations worldwide,” argues the Article 36 paper. As studies on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons have shown, low-income countries could be more vulnerable to the negative impacts that any nuclear explosion would have on economies, the environment, and development objectives.

As reflected in Reaching Critical Will’s 2013 publication Unspeakable Suffering, the use of nuclear weapons would undermine development and exacerbate poverty, hunger, and inequality. Interruptions to the supply of food and petroleum within the country where the nuclear explosion has occurred; disruptions to the global supply of goods and the impact that has on the local economy, the business sector, and the stock market; damage to infrastructure, lives, and livelihoods; and resulting forced or voluntary migration all have direct impacts on the levels of poverty and development in the affected country.

Global economic recession—a likely effect of the use of nuclear weapons—further undermines development objectives. Direct development aid is reduced due to perceived budget constraints in developed countries, while the recession also slows or ends economic growth in developing countries. The International Monetary Fund estimated that the global economy contracted by 0.6 percent in 2009 and that economies of developing countries contracted by 1.8 percent. The World Bank estimated that an additional 64 million people would fall into extreme poverty as a result of the global recession.

While a nuclear weapon explosion will not discriminate between rich and poor in its immediate impact, its long-term consequences will. Within countries, note the Guidelines for Crisis and the Millennium Development Goals, “the poorest populations are the most vulnerable to disasters as they are often left to settle on the riskiest locations and have least access to measures of prevention, mitigation and preparedness.” Disasters tend to exacerbate poverty because the poor are disproportionately affected by post-disaster inflation and by cuts in social spending. After a disaster, most governments reallocate funds from capital and social expenditure to cover expenses related to clean-up and reconstruction and most donor countries reallocate resources from development to emergency relief.

And amidst this reality of impacts, a handful of mostly wealthy countries wield nuclear weapons or include them in their security doctrines. They also dominate the discussions at NPT and other nuclear forums—except for the conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. At the three conferences, held over two days in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna, low-income countries were represented in force. Their voices were clearly heard in panel discussions and general debates, issuing a resounding call for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. And coming out of the Vienna meeting, many of them have endorsed what is now known as the Humanitarian Pledge for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

This Pledge now has over 90 endorsements from countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe—and the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean. Its recognition of the complex and interrelated effects of a nuclear weapon detonation on health, environment, infrastructure, food security, climate, development, social cohesion, and the global economy leads to the firm commitment that nuclear weapons must never be used again, under any circumstances. To this end, those endorsing the Pledge commit themselves “to follow the imperative of human security for all” by filling the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

This has been the dominant message from the majority of NPT states parties during this Review Conference. And it is this message that will be muffled by procedural decisions that decrease transparency and accessibility of meetings during the remainder of this Conference. But these countries will not be the silenced majority—they have found their voice through the 159-state joint statement on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, and even more so, through the forward-looking Humanitarian Pledge. Regardless of what happens at this Review Conference, this is what Ireland described as “the new reality” and there is every reason to believe that it will lead to negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

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